In The News

Four Questions About the First Woman to Clerk at the United States Supreme Court

By: Judge Larry A. Jordan, Ret.*

As seen in the Supreme Court Historical Society Quarterly: Number 4, 2012

I recently learned who the first woman law clerk was at the United States Supreme Court. I was very surprised and elated about my discovery, but I also felt a sense of ignorance. To see if others were more knowledgeable, I started asking the lawyers at my mediations the following four questions:

  1. Who was the first woman to clerk at the United States Supreme Court?
  2. What year did she clerk?
  3. Which justice did she clerk for?
  4. From which law school did she graduate?
I have asked approximately 100 lawyers these four questions, and as of this writing, only one lawyer has been able to answer any of my questions. (Douglas Strandberg, of Friday Harbor, guessed the law school that she attended.) I am confident that some lawyers in Washington state know the answers, but the lawyers I questioned confirmed that they all shared my ignorance.

The Answers

  1. Helen Lucile Lomen. (She dropped the Helen and was known publicly as Lucile, Miss Lomen at the Supreme Court, Lucy to many friends, and Lu to her family.)
  2. The year was 1944–1945.
  3. The justice was William O. Douglas.
  4. The law school was the University of Washington.

Lomen’s Background

Lucile Lomen was born in Nome, Alaska, on August 21, 1920. Both of her grandparents moved to Nome during the gold rush at the end of the 19th century. Her paternal grandfather was a lawyer who was appointed to the Alaska Territorial Court by Calvin Coolidge in 1925 and again by Herbert Hoover in 1930. Her father was a prominent businessman with the Lomen Commercial Company and a member of the Alaska Territorial Senate. Her family temporarily moved to Seattle in 1934, but because of a fire that destroyed much of Nome, the family continued to reside in Seattle. Lomen graduated from Queen Anne High School in 1937. She later attended Whitman College in Walla Walla and graduated with honors in 1941. In 1947, Lomen wrote that Whitman “prides itself on its friendliness and . . . is largely devoted to the grooming of students who will later enter the professional schools.” She also wrote that “[n]ow that I look back on my college career the outstanding part of my life at Whitman consists of living, working, and playing with people.”

Lomen applied and was accepted to the University of Washington School of Law, which had been admitting women from the time it began in 1899. In 1941, some East Coast law schools such as Harvard did not admit women. There were three women in her graduation class. She was Law Review editor, vice-president of the Law Review board, published several articles (including an article on constitutional law for which she received a prize), and graduated first in her class. Ann Lomen Sandstrom, one of Lucile’s three younger sisters, says, “I was always in awe of Lu — my first mentor. She taught me how to study and the fun of learning. She had an intense focus on schoolwork, and later on law.”

Of course, after the United States entered World War II, many of the male students did not return to law school, which affected the recruitment of law clerks. In those days, the associate justices each had only one law clerk, making the choice particularly important. Prior to that time in history, there had been no women law clerks in the Supreme Court. In 1944, Justice Douglas wrote to Judson F. Falknor, dean of the University of Washington Law School, who had supplied him with four of his prior law clerks. Justice Douglas indicated that he would hire a woman if she “is absolutely first rate.” Dean Falknor recommended Lomen. After checking with faculty at his alma mater, Whitman College, and receiving very favorable recommendations, Douglas hired Lomen. Lomen described Justice Douglas as very businesslike at the court and someone who could do legal research faster than anyone she had ever known. In 1964, Lomen wrote that in addition to the professional growth that occurred from associating with Justice Douglas, “a more concrete benefit is the number of doors that have been open to me as a woman in the profession because of that year.” Justice Douglas described Lomen as having “a fine mind” and “a great capacity for work.” Lomen often worked 16 hours a day and would sleep on a couch in her office.

While at the Supreme Court, Lomen socialized with the secretaries, and although the other clerks accepted her, she felt there were differences based on gender, age, legal education, and geography. Most of the other clerks were from the East Coast and were educated at such prestigious law schools as Harvard, Yale, and Columbia as well as the University of Chicago. Lomen once stated that she and a law clerk from Wisconsin were considered westerners, and the two of them “thought differently…than the way the other eight thought.” She said, “I never knew if my problem was because I was a woman or because I was younger, or what.”

After clerking for a year, Lomen returned to Washington state and worked as an assistant state attorney general for three years. Thereafter she worked at General Electric from 1948–1983, retiring at corporate headquarters as compensation and benefits counsel. Her sister Ann said that “the entire Lomen family was extremely delighted when, after retirement, she chose in 1989 to return to Seattle.” Lomen died on June 21, 1996, at the age of 75.

Lomen’s Legacy

Lucile Lomen was a true pioneer in many ways. Certainly life in Nome in the 1920s must have been difficult. From the description of her work ethic, those early frontier years must have helped form her values and penchant for hard work. She clearly demonstrated her legal abilities while a law student at the University of Washington. She wrote several scholarly articles, held many leadership positions, and graduated first in her class. The Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsberg in a speech given at Wellesley College on November 13, 1998, said that Lomen’s “Washington Law Review Note on the Privileges and Immunities under the Fourteenth Amendment, published in 1943, has had remarkable staying power. Lomen’s student note appears this very semester on Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe’s Constitutional Law seminar reading list.” To say that Lomen was ahead of her time is more than true, as it was not until 1966 that the next woman law clerk was hired in the Supreme Court, when Justice Hugo Black hired Margaret Corcoran.

Like many of us, Lomen was lucky to live in a place that afforded her many opportunities, including the opportunity as a woman to attend law school. As Lomen wrote in 1946, “[t]oo many women in the profession have been discriminated against to make a worth-while enterprise for one who is not interested in good hard work.” The University of Washington Law School and its graduates should celebrate the fact that Kellye Testy is its first woman dean, and that 1944 graduate Lucile Lomen was the first woman law clerk in the United States Supreme Court.

Lomen’s observations about the differences between her and the other clerks are very insightful. Gender diversity and equality has a positive effect that is not easy to define but clearly exists in most institutions, including the judiciary. As Lomen observed, geographic diversity can also be important. The current U.S. Supreme Court is made up of graduates from East Coast law schools who often hire clerks from the same schools. If Lomen were asked today whether a more diverse geographical perspective is desirable in addition to increased gender equality, I am sure her answer would be an unequivocal “Yes.”

Originally printed in the Washington State Bar News 2011, and is reprinted here with permission.

Judge Larry Jordan, Ret., served on the King County Superior Court for a decade.  Before taking the bench, he served form 1975-1991 as a commissioner of Division I of Washington State Court of Appeals.  He is currently a mediator/arbitrator at Judicial Dispute Resolution.

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